Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rhoda Janzen's "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress"

Rhoda Janzen holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she was the University of California Poet Laureate in 1994 and 1997. She is the author of Babel’s Stair, a collection of poems, and her poems have also appeared in Poetry, The Yale Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Southern Review. She teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, and reported the following:
I probably wouldn’t have picked page 99 [inset, below left, click to enlarge] as representative of my book, but hey, sometimes the meaning of life can be located in your sister’s closet. It’s huge, it has a variety of options, and the mirrors do not lie. In the corner at the back is a stack of mother-in-law sweaters, themed on snowflakes and elk. We’ve all been there. (“Elk! Frisking in a winter wonderland! Aren’t they adorable!”) And if you feel cosmically compelled to reminisce about a lame blind date twenty years prior, let it be so. In fact, while you’re at it, do a little imitation of the way that guy danced! Shake a tailfeather as you sing She’s a brick howwsse—owwww! Because that’s what we collectively do in times of crisis, is it not? Call me crazy, but engaging in off-topic badinage is just the ticket when your life’s in the pooper. Plus what says, “We will overcome!” better than a dress that makes your torso look weirdly square, like the Sphinx?

On this topic, I would like to add that in my small Midwestern town there used to be a consignment store called My Sister’s Secret. It was impossible to drive by without inserting a long list of Adjectives of Shame into the title—My Sister’s Nasty Shaved Powdered Secret, and so on. Why the proprietors selected a suggestive name like My Sister’s Secret I cannot say, but I feel in my heart that this title frames some quiet injunction to improve the human condition. Sister has a secret. It is in her closet. And if you go there and try on seventeen of her identical black dresses, you will doubtless feel better.
Read "The Tractor Driver or the Pothead?" in the New York Times Magazine, an essay adapted from Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.

Learn more about Mennonite in a Little Black Dress at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue